Close Premium Finance has introduced a new web synching system, iPrompt, that will allow call centre staff to work from home. Andy Cook took a look

What happens to call centre staff when they aren't busy?

They sit around waiting for calls. Of course, with excellent management this should never happen. But it does. The insurance industry has many peaks and troughs throughout the year and even the best planning can leave huge swathes of call centre space unoccupied or occupied with underworked staff.

The problem in the premium finance business is that peaks of activity occur during the renewal periods, January, April and July typically, explains Bob Golden, chief executive of Close Premium Finance.

So the premium finance provider has invested in a new telephony software system that will allow call centre staff to work from home. As Golden explains fixed costs can be reduced because people can be asked to work five days a week at peak and, say two days a week off peak. This is intended to attract high calibre part-time staff. The problem for many in the call centre industry is that relatively low wages are diminished by the cost of travel, claims Golden. So offering a home work alternative increases available spending and therefore make the proposition more attractive.

Smart software
At the heart of the system is new software that allows the call centre supervisor to monitor and instruct staff even though they are working at home. The software also cuts out lots of keying in. Staff are automatically logged into the right database, whether it be for a white-label customer or Close Premium Finance's own brand, by the software which recognises the incoming phone number and pops the correct screen in front of the telephonist.

Another new development of the system is web synching. This is where the broker/customer will automatically see the same iPrompt screen (iPrompt is Close's web-enabled premium finance system) and allows the telephonist to follow the customers' keystrokes. Alternatively it allows the broker or customer to follow the telephonists' keystrokes. The aim is to help brokers work their way through iPrompt wthout mistakes and to train them for the next time they use it (see How web synching works).

The move could have a big impact on Close's customers. Golden claims that more than 60% of personal and commercial lines business comes through the web-enabled system now. Indeed iPrompt is part of the insurance industry's furniture: Ockham and Allianz Cornhill even send their policy details to Close so that the iPrompt database is kept up to date.

Will disaster strike?
With all the details stored in an ASP system, what happens in case of disaster? What happens when the system goes down? Golden is confident that the impact will be minimal. He claims that the back-up centre in Isleworth - clearly visible from Golden's office on the 21st floor of Tolworth Tower in south London - can be online and operational in an hour. The data is backed up every seven minutes, he says.

As part of the upgrade of facilities, Close has introduced an internet cafe and has TV screens showing cartoons or sport. The development is part of a three-year, £7m IT investment.

Golden hopes the homework call centres will be up and running in a couple of months.